Recent Advances in Autism Research in the U.S.

Today, I thought that I would highlight some of the latest research that we are seeing on autism.

Last spring, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that among 8-year-old children, one in 54 has autism. This is an increase from the 1:59 prevalence reported in previous studies. This increase has spurred the scientific community to explore some of the factors linked with autism as well as treatment options.

In an analysis of DNA from more than 35,000 people, including 11,900 persons with autism, scientists identified variants in 102 genes linked with an increased probability of developing autism. Persons who carried this variant showed increased intellectual functioning compared to those who did not. The gene variants mainly reside in the cerebral cortex, which is responsible for complex behaviors.

The U.S. government funded a study to explore whether a synthetic form of oxytocin, a hormone produced in the brain, might promote sociality in children with autism. Prior experiments in mice had suggested that the hormone might have similar effects in children with autism. In this study with 300 children ages 3-17 with autism, the children received daily squirts of nasal spray or an inactive ingredient for several weeks. Small improvements occurred in both groups, but no meaningful impact.

Study to Explore Early Development (SEED) is the largest multi-year study in the U.S. to help identify factors that put children 2-5 years of age at risk for ASD and other developmental disabilities. Understanding the risk factors will help us learn more about the cause. So far, over 7,100 children and their parents are enrolled across all sites/states. An additional 2,000 children and parents are expected to enroll.

The research goals include learning about:

  • Physical and behavioral characteristics of children with ASD and other developmental disabilities as well as children without a disability.
  • Health conditions and disorders among children with and without ASD.
  • Factors associated with a child’s risk for developing ASD. These factors may be related to genes, health conditions, experiences of the mother during pregnancy, and the health and development of the child during infancy and the first few years of life.

Current sites are in Colorado, Missouri, Wisconsin, Georgia, and North Carolina.

For further information, visit https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/seed.html.

Looking back over the last 25 years, it’s truly amazing what we have learned about ASD. I can only imagine what we will learn in the next 25 years.

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